[Links to websites, including those of the Indian government, that the author used in 2000, no longer function. — George P. Landow (8 November 2018)

History of the Caste System

Caste is defined as a rigid social system in which a social hierarchy is maintained for generations and allows little mobility out of the position to which a person is born (Encarta Encyclopedia). In Sanskrit, the word for caste is "Varna" which means color. The origins of this word refer to the old racial differences between conquerors and conquered; the Aryans nomads which conquered the original natives around 1500 BC. However, the basis of the caste divisions was social and economic rather than racial. Under the caste system, Indian society was divided into four hereditary divisions. The highest is the Brahmans (priests and teachers). Second was the Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors). Followed by the Vaishyas (merchants and traders) and finally was the Sudras (workers and peasants). In additional to these four castes, there were the Harijans or Untouchables, which were not in the social order. The Indian caste was hereditary and marriage was only permitted within the same caste. Each caste had its own occupation and any contacts with another caste was strictly regulated and prohibited.

Impact of British Rule on the Caste System

By the time of British rule, starting from around the seventeenth century to 1947, the caste system had evolved and expanded into some 3000 different castes. The caste system although underwent great changes throughout this period but strictly speaking, never effectively eradicated. Interestingly, the first effect that the British had on the caste system was to strengthen rather than undermine it, for the British gave the Brahmans back certain special privileges which under Muslim had been withdrawn from them. On the other hand, the British legislators did not agree that the members of the lower-caste should receive greater punishment than members of the upper-caste for committing the same offense.

Under British rule, the untouchables and low-caste Indians enjoyed an improvement of their social standings. For example, with wealth and education, they could pass as members of higher castes from some distant area. The strict restrictions on social contacts became harder to enforce as members of different castes mingled increasing. The newly educated and affluence middle class in the cities mixed socially with people based on their financial position and class and not caste. Under the British, it was wealth and education, which determines a person's social status not caste.

By the end of the Raj, traditional Indian society began to break down into a westernized class system. A rising strong middle class with a heightened sense of Indian nationalism evolved out of the caste system allowing men of low castes to rise to high ranks and positions of power, previously closed to them. The moderation of the caste system was largely due to British rule and a man named Mahatma Gandhi (1869 - 1948), a product of the British education system. But the degree to which the caste system is successfully challenged by British rule is questionable. although castes are now prohibited by law in India, they have not totally vanished in practice. Till today, some untouchables still do the dirty work as their forefathers had done so for centuries.

Last modified 6 November 2000